Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC40 Review
By Movable Type Admin
The Lumix DMC-LC40 and the Lumix DMC-LC5 are Panasonic's first entries into the 4-Megapixel digicam arena, both cameras use the same CCD imager and Leica DC Vario-Sumicron 3X zoom lens. Because these cameras are quite similar internally the conclusions will also be quite similar.
The LC5 has the look and feel of an "old time" 35mm rangefinder camera, the LC40 is more "modern" designed and resembles what most people think a digital camera should look like. The 1.8-inch 110,000 pixel color LCD is easily viewed indoors or in the shade, outdoors or in high ambient light conditions its highly reflective plastic covering makes it difficult at best. It could really benefit from a non-glare coating such as that used on the Canon ELPH digitals. It has a real time refresh rate so it can be easily used as a live viewfinder. The LC40's controls are plainly marked and the menus are well organized and easy to understand. The control buttons use standard symbols and functions so if you've used other digicams you'll have a minimal learning curve. The optical viewfinder is bright and clear with a coverage of about 85% of the captured frame, this is about average. Next to the viewfinder is a diopter adjustment for those of us with less than perfect eyesight.
One of our major concerns is the LC40's auto focus system. The wide area AF mode is less than reliable and often focuses on high-contrast background objects. The wide AF mode is the default setting and can not be changed in the "AUTO" shooting mode. The solution is to select spot AF but the user must be in Program, Aperture or Shutter priority mode, not "AUTO" which many first-time users would select. The disadvantage of spot AF is that the subject must be in the center of the frame when you half-press the shutter release for focus lock before recomposing. If you are photographing two people who are not in each other's arms, spot focus makes the camera focus between them and possibly on the wall behind which makes the main subjects out of focus. The wide AF mode of most other cameras in this category handle this and most other situations properly, unfortunately the LC40 doesn't. The only reliable focus mode after considerable attempts at people photography was the spot AF focus mode. The LC40 requires careful pre-focusing in all AF modes as it allows the shutter to fire regardless of whether the focus is locked or not.
Image processing is less than robust and takes approx. 6 seconds between shots in single frame mode, this is rather slow when compared to its peers. Hair detail and skin tone reproduction in a head and shoulders flash portrait is less than satisfactory. We judge a camera's resolution by its ability to record the fine detail (or the lack of) of human hair. And of course everyone wants a camera that faithfully reproduces the proper skin tone colors. The LC40 consistently captures average Caucasian skin color with too much magenta, very reminiscent of the Nikon D1 (not D1X or D1H.) Outdoors in "fine" weather the colors of most subjects are very close to natural but it still makes people look a little too magenta. We saw more than the usual amount of "noise" in clear blue sky areas and there was noticeable shadow noise in the low contrast areas of the image. We also noticed that people's skin often appeared "blotchy" or even semi-solarized, something that is normally attributed to a lack of dynamic tonal range. The flash is small and rather underpowered and the exposure system was often "fooled" by strong "flash back" from light colored or highly reflective foreground objects.
06/24/02 update: The LC5 (and LC40) images seem to be interpreted in one of two ways, either examined on the monitor screen or the printed results. Those of us that were basing our image quality remarks on the images alone seemed to come to the same conclusion that the images just didn't "look" right. And then there were those that were looking at the printed results and most of them said that they thought the image quality was as good or better than other cameras of similar resolution. I've said it myself many times, since the advent of three, four and five megapixel cameras we are "seeing" smaller and smaller portions of the image at 100% on our 800x600 or 1024x768 sized screens. We are now being a lot more critical of these images on a pixel level whereas we used to judge an entire one megapixel image on the screen without the need for it being scaled down to fit. We post 640x480 (or smaller) images on web sites and most people don't use images larger than 800x600 for on-screen viewing. Two, three, four, five and six megapixel images are for making prints and maybe we should change our mindset to reflect this new reality. The same images that I said looked "blotchy" or solarized make perfectly good prints on my Canon S9000 printer. Panasonic says that the camera has been optimized for printing and they may just be right about this.
The choice of Secure Digital / MultiMedia Card storage for a four megapixel camera is questionable at best. These flash memory cards are not presently available in sizes larger than 128MB, cost more than competing flash memory formats and suffer from less than robust transfer speeds. The LC40 in 4 megapixel mode consumes about 1.9MB per image so it's easy to see that a 16MB or 32MB card isn't going to go too far, especially if capturing movies as they consume ~3MB for a 10-second clip. CompactFlash cards are readily available up to 512MB in capacity with an average price of around $0.50/MB. On a positive note the LC40 (and LC5) are powered by hefty 7.2v 1400mAh Lithium Ion battery packs (that look very similar to Canon's BP-511.) Panasonic claims the battery will last for about 300 shots (half using flash with the LCD on) or about two and a half hours. We used it off and on for several days with the LCD on at all times and the battery was never a problem. The battery charges in- camera using the supplied charger in two hours or less.
The Lumix DMC-LC40 has a very good Leica zoom lens, the body design and control layout is equal to the competition and its powered by an excellent rechargeable battery pack. But the competitiveness of this camera seems to wain from there. The majority of the consumers shopping in this price range and resolution class are those who want to capture memories of their family. If the camera fails to focus on the obvious subject or the image processing fails to render a clear and properly colored image they're going to be disappointed. Panasonic seems to have dropped the ball on the image processing and focus system, the LC40 is just not a contender in the highly competitive arena of today's 4-megapixel cameras. We hope that Panasonic remedies these shortcomings in future Lumix models.
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